The pay grade of a professional musician may be one of the most varied out there. A musician’s income can range from millions to getting paid in beer to perform at a pub. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the mean hourly rate of a professional musician is $23.50. But that wage is shaped by numerous factors including the size and type of the venues a musician plays, popularity, the type of music performed, if they receive income from TV or films, and if they teach lessons.
For the musically inclined among us, there are many ways to get paid to do what you love. There are opportunities to be a cruise ship musician, join a cover band or an original band, busking, performing at weddings, making and selling original music, playing in a symphony orchestra, musical theatre, and teaching.
You don’t need to have a hit song on the radio in order to make a living as a professional musician. Local classical guitarist, Jonathan Davis manages to pull in $50,000 a year doing what he loves most of all —making music. Davis teaches guitar lessons out of a private studio, plays gigs, performs at parties and weddings, and works, as a music teacher at a community college. Davis has been interested in music for most of his life, starting as a child when his interest was piqued during weekly music class in kindergarten.
“I played violin for a year starting in third grade, and switched to trombone in 4th grade. When I started spending my required practice time figuring out Nirvana songs on the trombone in 7th grade, it seemed time to switch to guitar. Guitar really clicked with me, I was amazed at how I could play the same songs from the bands I was listening to. My teacher was also a classical guitar player, so I got interested in that after a few years. I enjoyed playing, so when it was time to go to college I decided to major in music and see if I could make a career out of it. I majored in classical guitar at the University of Arizona, and then got a tuition waiver/TA position to go to the University of Akron for my Master’s in classical guitar.”
In order to achieve the income Davis pulls in, he has a hectic schedule. He has 40 students that take private lessons from him weekly and another dozen or so that are enrolled in the two courses he teaches at a local community college.
“I don’t have a complete day off. I teach at my private studio and a community college, so I bounce back and forth. I typically practice, exercise, and grocery shop in the morning then teach in the afternoons into the evenings. On weekends, I have students in the morning. During wedding gig season, I do some schedule gymnastics to move my weekend students early morning or evening.”
Davis says the biggest drawback to his career is not being taken seriously.
“I often get asked if this is all I do. Yes, working every day, having lessons as early as 8:30 am and as late as 9:00 pm (though not continuously) is all I do. Many people seem to instantly go to the image of some guy smoking pot and playing Led Zeppelin songs in the basement. I have a website, I’m constantly scheduling and rescheduling, I plan student recitals, and I need to practice at least a couple hours a day to keep my own chops up.”
As for teaching or gigs, Davis loves doing both.
“I definitely do a lot more teaching. I’d like to gig more, but I’m predisposed to playing and teaching rather than networking and schmoozing which is required more for gigs. I’m also not particularly crazy about playing music I’m not a fan of. This puts limits on me, as a classical guitarist is not as in demand as someone who can also do jazz and pop. I’ve done the cover band thing too, and it stopped being fun fairly quickly.”
The biggest challenge Davis faces working as a musician is not letting the job part get in the way of his love for music.
“When you take something you enjoy and make it your job, well, it becomes your job. Students come and go and you get passed over for gigs. I have to remember how much I enjoy playing at times like those.”
Davis’ advice for other musicians hoping to make a living in his field is:
“Be on time. It doesn’t matter how good you are, you’re not worth it if you’re a flake. Someone who’s solid and on time, will get a lot more work than someone who’s spectacular but unreliable. Strings, iTunes songs, amps, guitars, etc. are all tax deductions. Don’t burn bridges. People won’t be fair, they’ll flake on you. Suck it up, they still may give you a referral, but they won’t if you tell them off (even if they deserve it).